BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei, Dec. 31, 2015 ? Bishop Cornelius Sim of the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam has pointed out the “ban” on Christmas celebrations in the oil-rich sultanate is not as bad as it was made out to be, stressing it aims only to protect its predominantly Muslim population and not offend its expatriate Christian communities.
“Much has been spread abroad regarding the instructions about the dos and don’ts on the observation of the festival. We have been informed that these are directed primarily towards Muslims themselves. You may also have read the justification that the Ministry of Religious Affairs gave for the restrictions i.e. to protect Muslims from being led astray in their faith. I presume those who issued the instructions have thought long and hard on this point even if I am not privy to their train of thought as such,” the prelate told CBCP News in an interview.
Sim’s statement came on the heels of negative reactions from Christians abroad to the viral news that the Brunei government allegedly “prohibited” Christmas.
“As a religious professional myself, I do sympathize with those who are trying to deal with issues that confuse members of their religion and hence lead them to compromise their religious faith and practice. We regularly evaluate our religious education and spiritual formation programs where we instill respect and esteem for other religions while at the same time remaining committed and faithful to our Catholic faith and doctrine. We believe this goes a long way to address many of such concerns and worries,” he explained.
“To be honest, I am not sure the absence of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ in malls adversely impacts the thinking Christian’s observance of this special period. ‘Santa Claus’ as portrayed in popular culture is hardly an adequate let alone appropriate representation of what Christmas is about! Evergreen trees are nice in themselves but they are certainly not essential to a prayerful observance of this holy time,” he added.
Sim went on to share that Christians in Brunei have not really seen any appreciable difference in how they celebrated the season as compared to previous years.
In fact, parishes in the country continued the observance of Dawn Masses (Misa de Gallo) which it adopted in the mid-1990s, realizing that a sizeable portion of Catholics in Brunei are Filipinos.
According to him, on the morning of Dec. 24 the local Catholics held the final Dawn Mass in Bandar Seri Begawan to facilitate movement of people through the streets during the annual procession marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
“The Ministry of Religious Affairs had written to seek our assistance in this matter and we were happy to help out in this simple way. As always the Midnight Mass was celebrated in Bandar Seri Begawan, Seria, Kuala Belait, and Temburong on Christmas eve. On the 25th [of] December, several Masses were also celebrated at the above locations. Because Christmas Day is a public holiday in Brunei, these services were well attended. It was heartening to see our Catholics come to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a simple but joyous way,” he said.
OFW Christmas party
Sim noted local parishes on Christmas night opened up their facilities to host the annual Christmas party for migrant workers, many of whom are from the Philippines.
“In Bandar Seri Begawan, more than 1,500 overseas workers and their dependents attended the event. They were able to choose from a variety of Indian, Chinese, and Filipino foods. Dances and songs as well as prizes for lucky draws were the highlight of the night,” he said.
Sim stressed Brunei authorities are generally very respectful and considerate towards other religious communities in their implementation of such instructions, and sees no reason why this should not continue to be the case since their Constitution guarantees religious tolerance.
“Catholics in this country have always been able to practice their faith publicly as a worshipping community and look forward to continuing to do so in the time to come,” said the bishop, noting Catholic Bruneians objectively speaking hardly differ from other fellow citizens who have a duty to contribute to the nation’s development through individual efforts and other channels like Catholic schools and provision of social services.
“This year, as we contemplate the Christ child in his poverty and simplicity, wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, away from all the ‘merry making’ we appreciate in a new way the words of Pope Francis that ‘Christmas is joy, religious joy, an inner joy of light and peace.’ Whatever the secular trappings of Christmas in fashion, Catholics in Brunei are privileged to be reminded once again who is the reason for the season and give glory to God in the highest for the gift of his Son!” he added. (Raymond A. Sebastián with reports from Yen Ocampo / CBCP News)